What’s the Difference Between Stomach Flu, Influenza and a Cold?

Henry Ford Health's Dr. Lisa Saab discusses the differences between stomach flu, influenza and the common cold.

How much do you know about “the flu”? It can be a tricky sickness. You may be surprised, for instance, to learn that “stomach flu” isn’t really influenza at all.

“It is a very common misconception that the ‘stomach flu’ and the flu are one in the same,” says Dr. Lisa Saab, a board-certified pediatrician at Henry Ford Health. “Stomach flu is an inflammation of the stomach and intestines. Influenza is usually a respiratory illness, but may also have stomach and intestinal symptoms as well,” she explains.

Saab believes the similarity in symptoms, along with the “flu” name, may lead people to confuse the two illnesses. Here, we’ll iron out a few other points when it comes to the flu.

What is the impact of the flu in kids?

“Flu can be a severe illness often leading to complications, hospitalizations and even death,” Saab notes.

While flu cases were historically low in 2021 — possibly thanks in part to the increase in social distancing and hygiene practices used to combat the coronavirus — the flu typically has a big annual impact. In spring of 2020, four Michigan children were confirmed to have died from the flu, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) notes.

The flu generally occurs between October and April. Over a 36- year span, February has been the peak month for flu cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But could it be a cold instead of the flu?

“Colds and flu are two different illnesses as well,” Saab says. “Colds are caused by numerous different groups of viruses, while the flu is caused solely by the influenza virus.”

According to the CDC, cold symptoms are usually milder than the flu. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose. Colds generally do not result in serious health problems, such as pneumonia.

On the other hand, flu symptoms include extreme tiredness, dry cough, vomiting, belly pain, extreme body aches and headaches and chills paired with a high fever.

“Unlike a cold, the flu can make it difficult for a person to even get out of bed,” Dr. Saab says. “This is especially true in individuals with underlying health conditions, including asthma and diabetes.”

What’s the best way to treat and prevent the flu?

Saab notes that antibiotics are not routinely used to treat the common cold or the flu. “Colds and flu are caused by viruses and cannot be treated with antibiotics, which treat only bacterial infections, therefore would not be effective,” she explains.

And, while the flu can indeed be deadly, Saab says that getting an annual flu shot can decrease the risk of developing the disease and help protect your children against the flu. “People 6 months and older should receive the flu vaccine, because flu can lead to severe illness and even death, even in otherwise healthy individuals.”

The best time to get a flu vaccine is in the fall, before flu season starts, so your body has time to build up immunity. However, doctors say that getting a flu vaccine anytime during flu season still offers some benefits. It may take up to two weeks for protection to develop.

In addition to getting vaccinated, the CDC says families can practice preventive steps like staying away from sick people and washing your hands often to reduce the spread of germs — classic ways to stave off germs that were underscored in the recent pandemic.

While supplements, such as elderberry, may seem enticing, keep in mind they ultimately won’t prevent that cold or flu. Instead, focus on developing additional good health habits, like getting adequate sleep, being physically active, drinking plenty of fluids and eating nutritious food will also help fight off colds and flu.

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Lisa Saab or another Henry Ford doctor, visit henryford.com.



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